Want to Learn Something About a Person? Look at His/Her Mistakes.

Years ago, I warned my then three-year-old daughter to “behave” when she went to visit her little friend down the street. Without pause, she chirped brightly, “OK, Daddy! I’ll be very have” (it rhymed with “save”). And she ran out before I could respond.

But her comment lingered. She’d NEVER heard that word before all by itself. Sure, there was “have” as in “I have a cold”; but her “have” rhymed with “save” and that had never been said anywhere, in any version of English I’d ever heard on this continent. Was she hallucinating? Hearing impaired? Was I a bad parent? Was my Baltimore dialect corrupting her?

But then I thought, “Wait a minute! She just INVENTED a word! How’d she do that? “It blew away the theory that children learn language from hearing and imitating it . Here she was happily and confidently uttering nonsense.

Then, a few weeks latter, my son asked for a “yapple” (“apple” with a “y”). Yapple?! What?!

I’m sure there were many other nonsense things they said, mistakes that I wrote off as “cute” or that I simply didn’t really attend to, the same way we DON’T attend to the speech miscues of foreigners, drunks, people with speech impediments and the nonsensical gibberish of other people’s three-year-olds.

But I wouldn’t let it go. And then, I figured it out! What she had done was segment the word “behave” into two words: “be” and “have”. Then, she assigned “be” the grammatical status of VERB. Then, recognizing that in commands,” be” is followed by an adjective, she assigned her second word (i.e.:”have”) the grammatical status of ADJECTIVE.  She’s heard commands like, “Now you be good” or “Be quiet” or “You be nice” and so, concluded that “have” went in that same adjectival category. From there, it was an easy move to put an “intensifier”(in this case “very”) in front of “have” and create the novel, never-utttered, never-heard-before statement, “I’ll be very have!” She figured if you can be very good, very nice, very quiet, you can also be very “have”. What I failed to ask her was, “So when you’re have, what are you doing?” Lamentably, I never got the chance; she grew up too fast. But I’ll bet she was very “have” when she visited her little girlfriend next door. She was…still is… very “have” as far as I’m concerned. But with that “cute mistake” she revealed an astonishing mastery of phonology, morphology, syntax and grammar…and an equally astonishing ability to exploit that knowledge to generate novel utterances… which all of us do effortlessly every day.

But what about the “Yapple”. Well, if you say “The apple” to yourself, you’ll hear a long “e” sound at the end of “the” because  the article “the” comes before a word beginning with a vowel “apple” (compare “the train” with “the engine”; the first “the” is like “Thuh”, the second is like “Thee”.)  Now,  when the second “the” is pronounced, the front part of the tongue moves toward the same place that “y” is made, near the hard palate. When this happens, the final sound in “the”(thee)  is actually “y.” Listen to the way you say “the owl” or “the elephant”. It’s not that you can’t say “thuh owl”; it’s just that “thee owl” is somehow easier. So when my son INVENTED the word “yapple”, he was articulating his analysis of “the apple” because he’d heard “th” + “ee” +”y” +” apple” and logically presumed he heard “yapple”.

And that’s when I began to appreciate not just the extraordinary linguistic sophistication of very young children. I also realized that mistakes are enormously informative, inviting one to pay attention to mistakes, to figure out where they came from and why and how. They are invitations to understanding and eureka moments. And I’ve been welcoming their appearances ever since!


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